Rise in 14er deaths reflects rise in climbers, fearless behavior
October 11, 2010
Ten climbers have died scaling Colorado’s tallest mountains this season, a possible record for tragedy in the increasingly popular pursuit of 14,000-foot peaks.
Yet, with the number of Colorado peak-baggers reaching 500,000 every season by one group’s estimate, the number of fatalities per 1,000 hikers could actually be declining.
“From year to year, there are peaks and valleys, but when you look long-term, like decade to decade, the trend is generally going down in terms of deaths,” said Lloyd Athearn, executive director of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, which works more to minimize the impacts on fragile alpine terrain than to promote hiker safety. “Still, sometimes you just scratch your head and wonder what’s going on with the mountain gods here.”
No one formally charts hiker and climber deaths in Colorado’s mountains. And because climbers aren’t required to register before beginning an ascent, it’s impossible to accurately count the number of hikers on the state’s 54 Fourteeners.
This year’s 10 deaths are considered by many a tragic apex, but without official tracking, talk of a record year for fatalities is speculative.
Regardless, years like 2010 could fuel a push to impose fees or registration for the state’s heavily trafficked summits.
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A proposed fee program is under consideration for South Colony Basin, a launching point for four Fourteeners in southern Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo range. Such a program would not be unprecedented nationally. Last month, federal administrators at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington and Alaska’s Denali National Park and Preserve announced plans to raise climber fees by 150 percent to help offset increased costs related to each park’s climbing program. The new fees – $500 for Denali climbers and $50 at Rainier – drew criticism from climbing groups.
Rocky Mountain National Park’s Longs Peak sees as many as 400 hikers a day on the well-worn Keyhole Route during busy summer weekends. The last formal tally in 2002 logged 9,698 hikers and climbers reaching the summit of the 14,259-foot peak. This year, three men fell to their death while climbing Longs.
While not a record for the park, it is a higher-than-average number of fatalities. (The peak saw no deaths from 2005 to 2008 and of three deaths last year, two were from heart attacks.)
The deaths and the issue of hiker traffic on the difficult routes up Longs Peak have long spurred talk of potential registration or even fees, not unlike heavily traveled routes in other national parks.
“It’s certainly something we continue to evaluate,” said Rocky Mountain spokeswoman Kyle Patterson.
But for the near term, park rangers are focusing on education. They are trying to send the message that an ascent up Longs’ most popular Keyhole Route is not a hike. It’s a climb. Even though a climb up Longs typically doesn’t require ropes, it does have high-risk maneuvers and difficult scrambling. For next season, park officials are considering a sign at the base of the Keyhole, where the trail turns to a near-vertical scramble.
“Something we could put there that could say, ‘Stop, think, assess,’ ” Patterson said. “Just to engage people at a critical decision point. Maybe get them to recognize if they have that ‘summit fever’ thing. Maybe get them to stop for a second and possibly pull them out of that.”
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